The Cold Equations

The Standing Indian Loop: Preparations and Decisions

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower once said that before a battle, preparations are everything; but once a battle is joined, preparations mean nothing. So it goes with hiking. Good preparation is absolutely essential for a multi-day hike, and most hikes that fail do so because the hiker was poorly prepared.  But the trick is knowing what to prepare for. For once on the trail, it’s late to prepare any further. Many an erstwhile hiker has set out into the woods considering themselves very well prepared, only to discover that they were in fact well prepared…but for the wrong hike.


The number of variables on a multi-day hike are infinitely larger than on a day hike, and so are the number of things that can go wrong. Much that you bring along inevitably is not needed, and at least one thing you need you won’t remember to bring. Sometimes things you thought you brought along wander off somehow and become…misplaced. Maps are often confusing, signs contradictory, landmarks aren’t where they are supposed to be or don’t show up at all. And of course, things break down. Sometimes the things that break down are a part of the hiker themselves…a muscle, a joint or even a will.

You never get a second chance to look your best in the woods

There are many things to consider in planning for a trip like the Standing Indian Loop. Sylvia and myself were both very busy the week leading up to departure, leaving for little time to prepare. Adding to the challenge was the fact that it had been a surprisingly long time since we had done a completely self-supported backpacking expedition. I was dismayed to learn that much of the gear that I had relied on for years was now inadequate, outdated or in need of replacement. I had for example been extremely dissatisfied with my MSR Sweetwater hand-crank pump water filter from years past; it badly needed replacement.

Before doing anything, I sat down and asked myself the Five Questions anyone should ask themselves before going on a trip of more than three miles into the wild.

Where am I going?

The Appalachian backwoods; mountainous, heavily forested country.

What am I going to be doing?

Three days of moderate walking with a few steep sections

How long am I going to be out?

Three days (two nights)

What conditions am I likely to see?

It is mid-April so…cold nights (temps in 30s) moderate days (temps in the 60’s) and a good chance of at least one day of rain. Snow unlikely, but possible.

How might things go wrong, and what might be REALLY useful to have in that situation?

My main concerns were mechanical injury and finding water. A means of signaling for help in case of trouble might be useful. I also wanted to have the ability to not only filter water as we went, but carry large amounts of it a short distance as necessary.

The well prepared hiker

Then, instead of asking what to bring, I asked myself what I DON’T need to bring. In this case, this wasn’t much, because our gear is already pretty lean. Though we were only out for two nights, you can’t take only two nights worth of tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, etc. These things have to come with you regardless. But Sylvia and I relied on the fact that our gear is already both lightweight and well considered.

We decided to save as much weight as we could by trimming excess in other areas. We brought only as much food as we thought necessary. I bought a smaller sized (100 g, or 3.5 ounce) canister of gas for the stove. We decided to take as few layers of insulated clothing as we dared.

Enough is…enough. Hopefully.

I thought carefully about the electronics, but in the end decided to take both our mobile phones, my brand-new Nikon Camera, and the GoPro. Pics or it didn’t happen, right? Well, I do kind of have this blog.

I was very close to leaving the camera at home since it is a bit bulky, but Sylvia insisted on carrying it. All this plus spar batteries, memory cards, chargers, USB cables and the usual footprint of stuff that supports gadgets.

Send Cameras, cords and GoPros

We took a trip to our favorite three letter outdoor retail chain and looked over what they had to offer in terms of water filters. I was more concerned about this than anything else going into the hike…my experience on long hikes is water is often a problematic and limiting factor, and filtering water very tiring and time consuming. In fact, for men of a ‘certain age’ like myself, camp chores are often as demanding on the knees and back as the hike itself is.

We finally settled on a Sawyer brand gravity assisted hydration system. I had ‘heard tell’ from many hikers that gravity assisted systems were now well regarded and had replaced the unreliable ‘steri-pen’ UV lights as the trending solution. The model we selected boasted that it was able to filter a whole gallon (3.78 liters) of water with no effort in about the same time it would take me to hand pump as much water with a lot of effort (and some amount of cussin’.) All you need is water and a branch, or something, to hang it from.  Intrigued, I decided to give it a go.

Sawyer one gallon gravity hydration system. H2O not included.

Being largely unfamiliar with the region, I studied many maps of the area to prepare. We have a set of Glossy NatGeo maps for trip planning, but as I have stated before, I find these maps to be insufficient and unhandy. They are big, unwieldy, and tend to provide a great deal of colorful detail about a wide area but not enough specific detail about the local trails and terrain. They have hard to read contour lines, but I would not compare them to USGS quality maps. A quick glance showed me (as I suspected) that while we had a map of the area , it left out or mixed up a lot of details or simply proved colorfully confusing.

To bolster the factory made technicolor map, I “hand-crafted” my own navigational aid…a map that Magellan, Cook, Ponce de Leon, Scott, Shackleton, Mallory or any such leader of a doomed expedition would be prod of.

Brian’s “hand-crafted” map, a cartoon worthy of Walt Disney himself
The technicolor NatGeo version. Busy, busy busy.


I looked into a number of trail apps for my phone as well but didn’t have enough time to familiarize myself with them. Besides, TITWOTD, right? Daniel Boone didn’t need a damn smart phone to negotiate the wilderness.


We also purchased a couple Mountain House meals, a half dozen packages of ramen noodles, two boxes full of granola bars, and that substance known as Gu…that crack-cocaine-level expensive substance that comes in a little squeeze package and tastes a bit like cake batter. At $1.50 a pop, it gives you a shot of sugar and caffeine to get your feet moving when you run out of gas on the trail.

Though I did not intend to do so, in my haste to check out I grabbed a whole bunch of Gu packages, and only when I got home did I realize I had grabbed…this…

Happy Birthday, GU!

With our basic equipment, new water filter, enough warm layers, sufficient food, our head lamps with fresh batteries, assorted photographic and communication equipment, maps both hand and factory rendered, and our Gu…and a plan…we set out Thursday morning for Franklin, NC and the Nantahala Forest. Our destination…Standing Indian Campground, and the loop hike that bears the same name. But what had we forgotten? What had we not even considered, that we would end up needing? What did we think we knew, that in fact we didn’t?

We hoped that out equations added up. The forecast for the next morning…Cold.

See you on the trail

Next…West to go South to go North

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